‘Everyone sees through their warp, through their bias, through their pretentions, through their needs.’ Norman Mailer, on journalism.
I read with interest Jonathan Green’s defence of journalism and his identification of the ‘true calling at the heart of the craft: to simply inform without bias or favour’. He acknowledges that much of what we currently get from the mainstream media is ‘calculated political fabrication, fear mongering and pap’, or the ‘insistent prosecution of a series of political propositions’. He makes a plea for journalism that embraces ‘calm objectivity and simple curiosity’, rather than conviction.
Good luck with that Jonathan.
In fact, for better or worse, objectivity in journalism is impossible. The selection and presentation of information cannot by definition be objective. No matter how hard journalists try to supress their own opinions, their world view will inevitably affect the material they select and the words they choose to use. All reporting involves choices, and choices involve preference for one view over another. This is true whether we are talking about reporting news, doing analysis or stating opinions. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. There are some things that journalists should do as part of their craft – like seeking and including alternative views, giving appropriate context, and not actually making things up – but this doesn’t amount to objectivity. Journalists may conceal their own views – but that becomes an exercise in self-censorship, not impartiality.
And I’m not sure objectivity is even desirable. Preferring a fair and equitable society over one that is driven by the profit and the greed of rich vested interests isn’t objective. It’s a matter of conviction. And if journalism were ever to reflect this preference, then so be it. This is what Tim Dunlop is alluding to when he says of the media that: ‘The truth is, nearly all the senior writers of these organisations, and the contributors they use, accept the neo-liberal consensus, and alternative views are simply never given the same prominence’. And as he goes on: ‘And so we-the-people are left with a very partial view of the issues.’
If a journalist writes from a different perspective, based on a different conviction, and is labelled ‘left-wing’, then this in my view is a badge to wear proudly.
Unfortunately, there are hardly any journalists working in the mainstream Australian media who are openly prepared challenge the neo-liberal consensus, even if they do in fact hold different convictions.
It is obvious to anyone who in interested in politics that the output of the mainstream media in Australia is heavily biased in favour of Tony Abbott and the LNP. In the unlikely event that you were ever unsure about this, just read an article from Australians For Honest Politics – it shows how in just a few days, the NDIS moved from being a Labor disaster to an Abbott victory in the Murdoch press. Mungo MaCallum makes the same point about Gillard never being rewarded for good policy. But the ABC and Fairfax are almost as bad; see for example Barry Cassidy’s article on the same issue, but blaming Gillard for winning the policy and losing the politics. Then there’s his take on the new Tony Abbott, now apparently ready for office: ‘He is showing a grasp of detail, a self-confidence and a sense of smarts that hasn’t always been there.’ Really? Andrew Elder did a great job on a similar ‘Abbott is ready’ article by The Age’s Jacqueline Maley.
Even if objectivity is not the answer, we need to know how this bias works. The first area for consideration is in what is reported. Things happen. But are they newsworthy? Who says so? Why is what the Leader of the Opposition says news? Why is the number of asylum seeker boat arrivals news, when the number of asylum seekers arriving by plane is not? Why is it news that Julia Gillard had a dodgy boyfriend nearly twenty years ago, while the fact that Abbott is currently being sued for $1.5 million for his dodgy practice in relation to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party is not? And the mother of them all – Ashbygate – apparently isn’t news at all.
The choice of what is reported depends on a number of factors. These include the editor’s political agenda, (which the reporter naturally plays up to), how easy it is to get the information – as in copying a press release, whether there’s a picture – and often, just the way the pack is going. There’s been some work showing that The Australian tends to sets the agenda for other so-called quality media, including the ABC; what they consider important is taken up by others. But whatever the basis, choices must be made; there is no objective measure of what we should be informed of.
Then there is how news is presented. It’s pretty easy to come up with examples of extreme bias – just look at the words used in the headlines cited in the article above to describe Labor’s introduction of the NDIS compared with those applied to the LNP. My current favourite is the use of the word ‘generous’ to describe Abbott’s Paid Parental Leave Scheme. Saying it’s ‘generous’ implies that it is better than the current Labor scheme. True, it is for 26 rather than 18 weeks. But it is only ‘generous’ in monetary terms to those who are already better off than most working women. The latter will probably be no better off than they are under the current scheme. (I say probably, because I haven’t yet seen any journalism that gives reliable data on this.) Adjectives matter. What if a journalist were to write that the scheme is ridiculously generous?
This raises the question of policy analysis. Just as I haven’t seen any analysis of the LNP Paid Parental Leave Scheme, so I haven’t seen any analysis of the LNP Direct Action Scheme as a response to climate change, or any analysis of the effect of spending cuts on the economy. It isn’t so much a question of bias in analysis, it’s the total absence of it in the mainstream media. OK, I don’t read everything, but please direct me to it if you know of any. The only analysis I see comes from independent bloggers like Greg Jericho and Matt Cowgill. OK, so Jericho is going to write for The Guardian – which rather proves my point about the important role of journalism with conviction. Jericho also rightly pointed out that just having a graph doesn’t make you objective – you can prove anything you like with statistics. The numbers do not speak for themselves. The analysis involves a frame of reference – yes, you guessed it – which is based on conviction – not merely on ‘simple curiosity’.
George Monbiot (image by digitalspy.co.uk)
Green doesn’t specifically address the issue of opinion piece journalism, but I assume he’d have to exclude it from his definition of the craft. Everyone knows what they’re going to get if they read Andrew Bolt. Opinion from both right and left can be nothing more than propaganda – as in Bolt’s case, but then it isn’t journalism. Opinion can be more or less nuanced and thoughtful – balanced even. It’s perfectly clear what George Monbiot’s convictions are, and I think he’s a brilliant journalist because of, not in spite of that.
So while I have to agree with Jonathan Green on how awful the current mainstream media are, I don’t think the situation could be improved by an appeal for objectivity. What we need is journalism that has the courage to challenge the inbuilt world view of the conservatives. It should be good journalism, true to its craft, but it should also be the journalism of conviction.